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"Ralph has got a real barometer for finding good talent," says Abi Morgan. "You have the incredible on-screen talent of Kristin, Felicity, Tom and Ralph himself, but you also have a huge ensemble of actors who aren't as well known who he is bringing to the fore. He's got a real eye."

The British film and theatre actress Felicity Jones was cast as Ellen Ternan even before Fiennes decided to play Dickens himself. Jones is one of the UK's hottest new acting talents following her award-winning role in Drake Doremus' Sundance 2011 hit Like Crazy and more recently Doremus' Breathe In, opposite Guy Pearce.

"I wanted someone who had great interior resources," says Fiennes of Jones. "Felicity's great gift is she's very intelligent and the camera reads a sense of other things happening inside of her."

In Jones' accomplished hands, Nelly is an astute, self-possessed young woman. "The older, Margate Nelly is someone who's got this secret she is sitting on and Felicity has an amazing ability to suggest that," says Fiennes. "And as the younger Nelly she has these moments when she laughs and is free, has a sense of humour, has a vulnerability. This is very much Felicity's creation."

Jones was captivated by the script and then by Tomalin's book. "I felt I had to understand who this woman was who'd almost been entirely eclipsed by history," the actress says of Ellen Ternan. "When Dickens meets Nelly he's confronted with someone who I felt wasn't particularly an open book. She's quite a closed character. There's something very unknowable about her and from the moment he first meets her he develops an obsession with her."

Two of Fiennes' close friends and colleagues also joined the cast: Scott Thomas, who Fiennes always had in mind for Mrs Ternan, and Tom Hollander, his great friend, who he cast as Dickens' great friend Wilkie Collins.

"He's uniquely inventive," says Fiennes of Hollander. "His insight into a part is always so delicate and sharp. He was also an amazing friend to me on set. Under pressure he was extraordinary in the support he gave to me."

The director worked with UK casting directors, Leo Davis and Lissy Holm of Just Casting to discover actors with which he wasn't familiar. "It forces you to define who a character is," says Fiennes of the casting stage. "But at the same time remain open to meeting different actors and suddenly realising, 'I hadn't thought of that but that person would be rather great'."

One of those was Joanna Scanlan who plays Catherine Dickens. She endowed the part of subdued and betrayed wife with a quiet dignity and intelligence. The delicacy she brought to her performance was crucial to the tone of the film.

"In Jo's performance," offers Morgan. "You feel Catherine's pain but you can see this is a woman who really loved Dickens, admired him and is caught by his plight. As much as she feels pain for herself she feels pain for his situation. That goes beyond anything I have written."

The camaraderie and vividness of the Victorian theatrical world that so appealed to Dickens was replicated on-set by the cinematic troupe put together by Fiennes. "It was always good fun on set," says Felicity Jones." Ralph was very good at creating an environment where people didn't feel threatened or intimidated. People wanted to do the best they could do."

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